Seven critical factors to great business branding: A guide for startups


Are you thinking about your brand as you build your startup? If not, you should stop everything you are doing right now and pay attention to what I’m about to tell you.

A brand is nothing more than a specific promise of value that a product or person makes to customers. Sounds simple, but if you don’t get this right, you will struggle to build a great business.

A great brand influences buying decisions, creates trust and can command a premium price. It’s also how you will build loyalty with your customers and separate what you do from your competition.

A great brand is why some businesses are great while others aren’t. And building a great brand begins in these seven critical areas.

The best name

Great branding starts with a name. Here are some tips to creating a killer one.

  • Explain what you do – A great name hints at what you do. For example, you know that Cloudkick has something to do with cloud computing. You know that Square is in the payment exchange business since people say “Let’s square up” when they mean to pay for something.
  • Squeeze in the keyword – What word or words will people use to search for your product? Do some research to find out, and then try to make your brand name off of that. Airbnb knew that people who are interested in bed and breakfasts will probably search under “bnbs.” ZumoDrive understood that people might search under “more driver space.”
  • Via Widjaya Ivan’s Flickr page

    Seek timelessness – Avoid trendy or faddish names. You want your brand name to be just as relevant five years from now.

  • Buy the .com – When considering your name, make sure that the .com is available. Do not settle for .net or .org. It is not the same.
  • Pick up the social media handles – Your next step is to find out if your brand name idea is available on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Make it easy to grasp – Your brand name should pass several simple tests, like easy to remember, easy to say, repeat and spell and easy to appear in Google (you don’t want to compete with highly-competitive terms).
  • Get the trademark – Your final step is to register your name with a trademark. This will avoid any legal battles if someone else is already using the name or if someone tries to use the name in the future.

Focus on emotional values

A good brand makes an emotional connection with customers. It recognizes that people make decisions on an emotional level and are looking to satisfy several emotional needs, like fear, pride and sense of belonging.

  • tapped into that feeling of connection people wanted with their past by allowing them to contact old high school friends.
  • BigOven looks to alleviate people’s frustration over what to cook for dinner every night by giving them everything they need from recipes to ingredient lists.
  • The Land of Nod wants parents to continue the joy of raising a child with products that are hip but functional.

Association with credibility

A great brand also has a reputation for being trusted. This starts with you, the founder. You need to be a person people like, trust and are willing to support and recommend.

A connection with established brands is a great way to build your credibility. If you have worked with established brands, communicate that through your brand messaging. Don’t forget to mention connections with individuals who have authority.

Credibility also comes through any kind of research you might have done. Jim Collins established his reputation through his research into companies that made the transition from good to great. The Chasm Group reputation is built on Geoffrey A. Moore’s work on tech startup marketing.

Identification with profitable customers

Too many startups fail to identify their most profitable customers. Thus, they either communicate in the wrong channels or spend their marketing dollars on the wrong customers.

How do you find these customers? The best metrics to use are those metrics that give you a forward-looking picture of customer profitability, like Customer Lifetime Value (CLV).

Once you have that metric, here are the three key decisions that you need to focus on when it comes to CLV:

  • Which customers should you communicate with?
  • What channels should you use?
  • How frequently should you connect with these customers?

That framework will help you build a brand that identifies and then focuses your efforts on profitable customers.

Definition of your USP

A great brand knows where it stands in the marketplace. And it defines that position first and foremost through its Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

Your USP tells your target customers what you do and how you stand out from your competitors.

Here are six questions you can answer to help you create a USP:

  • What are the three biggest benefits that you provide customers?
  • How can you be utterly unique?
  • Can you solve a performance gap or customer problem?
  • Can you offer proof for any claim you make?
  • Can you condense your USP into one clear, concise and compelling sentence?
  • Can you deliver on your USP?

Once you’ve answered all those questions, your next step is to start including your USP into all your marketing material, including your elevator pitch, headlines and business cards.

Recognition of your differences with competitors 

A great brand also communicates its differences with competitors. In a world flooded with new companies and products and advertising, your brand is likely to get lost.

There are about five typical areas you can differentiate yourself from your competitors:

  • Price – Americans are much more price conscience than they were five years ago. In fact, many Americans claim paying bills is a luxury. So if you can provide a product that satisfies needs at a price people don’t mind paying, you are on your way to winning the competitions business.
  • Trust – Now that money is scarce for so many buyers, they are making smarter decisions. They’ll spend the time looking into your background and history of your product. Recommendations from friends become very important, too.
  • Value – Try to find that one little extra you can throw in to nudge you past your competition. Could be free-shipping, 30-day trial, guarantee or free consultation.
  • Convenience Think about everything you do…from product development to your checkout process. How can you streamline these processes so customers are not inconvenienced?
  • Activism – Social concerns are taking front and center in the business world. How do you care for the earth? People in poverty? A minority group? Show your customers what you are doing.

A resonating message

Finally, a great brand has a story that people can relate to and that people love to share.

For example, TOMS sells trendy, expensive shoes, but people love buying them because for each pair of shoes you buy, a child in a third world nation gets a pair of shoes, too. These customers also love sharing the story behind TOMS. Its message resonates with them.

How can you create a message that resonates with customers? Here are three ideas:

  • Likeable brand – Can you create a brand that people like for one reason or another? One way to do this is to create a brand with a story that resembles David and Goliath…the small man wins over the big guy. Google’s early motto of “Do no evil” is an example. We don’t know who was doing the evil, but we had a hunch it was “the Man.”
  • Brands that overcome roadblocks – A brand that communicates how it overcame obstacles to get its idea and product to market can create a message that people enjoy hearing and sharing.
  • Achieving the desired goal – A story that ends with you and your company achieving an unlikely success will resonate. This includes stories of discovery and journey with lots of conflict thrown in.

You might think that stories do not belong in business, but that’s just not true. As Daniel Pink demonstrated in his book A Whole New Mind, we are transitioning into a marketplace that puts value on design and storytelling. Learn how to tell your brands story.


In the end, you do not make decisions based on logic or reason. You make decisions the same way you choose friends…you first like them emotionally, then justify that relationship through logic.

In the same way, when you purchase a product, you buy first on emotion and then defend that decision with logic. A great brand will cause people to respond with instinct and impulse. Just look at Apple fans!


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